Black Mayors, Black Politics, and the Gary Convention

Jesse Jackson participating in a rally, January 15, 1975 (Wikimedia Commons)

The National Black Political Convention of 1972 saw many national giants on the Black political scene with Amiri Baraka and Jesse Jackson, and the specter of Shirley Chisolm’s run for president, all coalesce in one place. The adage of all politics is local could not have been more apt as Mayor Richard Hatcher’s city of Gary played host to the convention. Through the eyes of Mayor Hatcher, we can see the plight of the Black Mayors of urban cities and the civil rights era that ushered in Black mayors in urban epicenters. The National Black Political Convention in Gary served as an ominous cloud over the pyrrhic victory of Black mayors, starting with the city of Gary itself.    

The tragedy of Richard Hatcher’s reign as Gary’s mayor begins with the story of trying to save Gary from implosion. After receiving his BA from Indiana University and subsequently his JD from Valparaiso University, Hatchet moved to Gary in 1963, and in 1965 won the election to Gary’s City Council. He ran for mayor in 1967 and unseated a white mayor. This election was not only historic in that Hatcher was the first Black mayor of a city with a population over 100,000, but began a trend of Black people exercising political power in a post-Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act world. Hatcher’s victory spurred wins in other Rust Belt cities like Cleveland, Newark, and Detroit. However, Hatcher’s victory did not usher in reform in Gary but instead led to white backlash.

Gary began as a city formed to house steelworkers in the early twentieth century, mostly white, and the industry attracted Black migrants from the South as part of the Great Migration looking for a better life. The Black population steadily grew, leading to the election of Hatcher. Whites left the city in droves, taking many businesses with them, and turned the downtown area into a barren wasteland. The steel industry that powered Gary began a steep decline as deindustrialization began in the United States, taking many of the jobs that helped create the middle class down with it. In 1971, Hatcher attempted to annex neighboring unincorporated Merrillville to regain some lost white population and businesses. However, Indiana gave Merrillville a special exemption to incorporate, leaving Hatcher with nothing. Hatcher needed something to jumpstart the city of Gary, and in 1972 opportunity arose. 

The 1972 presidential election year was a pivotal year in Black politics. African Americans were weary of four years of conservative Nixon policies, emphasizing “law & order” and wanted to exercise the full power of citizenship. Activists and Black leaders conversed with each other about focusing and setting a Black political agenda. The Black leaders formulated a plan of staging a political convention with the primary focus of setting a unified Black political agenda. Black leaders needed a city to host this political convention. Many cities were weary of having large gatherings of African Americans. Stereotypes of African American violence came to the fore from the discussions after the urban uprisings after the assignation of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr in 1968. Mayor Hatcher volunteered Gary as the host city. Hosting the convention would give Gary national attention while simultaneously reinvigorating the city, as deindustrialization took a toll.

The event was held in Gary from March 10-12 in a gym at Gary’s West Side High School. Many participants stayed in Chicago as Gary had only one hotel for residents. Organizers wanted the convention to be a Black-only event. The National Association for the Advancement for Colored People (NAACP) was conspicuous in their absence as they chose to boycott due to the event barring white people from participating. The event was led by Amiri Baraka and joined by luminaries such as Jesse Jackson and Coretta Scott King. The convention was able to commit to a platform. However, it failed to pass a resolution to endorse Shirley Chisolm as the first Black person running a serious campaign for President of the United States. Some considered this an example of sexism at the convention. Others at the convention argued that Black people should forge an independent political path. One success that came out of the convention was an uptick in Black political activity and a wave of Black elected officials, from 2,200 to over 5,000. The victory of Black politics turned out to be brief, with Mayor Hatcher and Gary being perfect examples.

While Hatcher thought that the National Black Political Convention would bring attention and new investment to Gary, the opposite outcome occurred as more businesses and people divested from Gary. The post-industrial world left Rust Belt cities like Gary dependent on manufacturing jobs and suffered under deindustrialization. Detroit under Coleman Young saw the shift in the auto industry, causing many jobs losses, high unemployment, and an increase in crime. Kenneth Gibson in Newark saw similar actions as he urged businesses to stop fleeing the city after his election in 1970. Amiri Baraka and others accused Gibson of “selling out” Newark to corporate interests. Gibson countered their claims to describe the need for a thriving business community to keep the city thriving. The National Black Political Convention invigorated the Black masses to elect more Blacks to the office but did not prepare for the inevitable white backlash and the difficulty of governing.

Fifty years after the National Black Political Convention, the enthusiasm and vigor that led to the election of many Black political figures have dissipated. The struggles of the early Black elected officials in trying to reinvigorate cities harmed by deindustrialization, globalization and suburbanization led to changes in how Blacks view politics. Black elected officials currently strive towards a “rainbow coalition,” first planned by Black Panther Fred Hampton. The rainbow coalition consists of a multi-racial and ethnic coalition that unites people under progressive causes adopted by Harold Washington in his mayoral victor in Chicago in 1983. Jesse Jackson’s presidential runs in 1984 and 1988 culminated with Barack Obama’s presidential election win in 2008. The lessons learned from the National Black Political Convention helped shape the current narrative of coalition-building supported by placing Black political thought into the political mainstream. 

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Brandon Stokes

Brandon Stokes is a doctoral candidate in the Department of African American & African Diaspora Studies. His research focus is on housing and urban development concerning African Americans on Chicago’s Southside with an emphasis on the intersection of race and class. Brandon will be a Short-Term Fellow this summer for the Black Chicago Research Consortium.

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